Last week I wrote an article regarding the issue of gendered violence in Muslim communities in Islam and the depictions of converts in the Ecuadorian media for Muslimah Media Watch. The issue caught my attention because this is not an unusual topic to hear for a convert. Furthermore, the articles felt “too close to home” for me, as I am a Latin American and a Spanish-speaking person.
Coming from a Latin American country, I grew up with different expressions of patriarchy that somehow permeated the environment where I developed. I went to schools where I was required to wear knee-length skirts (as “proper” ladies do), when I was a child I was unable to get a passport without my father’s consent (although my mom’s didn’t matter), I was told that my primary role in society was to be a mother and a wife, and I even sang the national anthem promising soldiers for my nation every Monday.
I was born in a country where 5000 women have been killed in one of the northern states and all the government has said in the past few years is “they were prostitutes” (does that mean they deserved to die and not being accounted for?) and where women are often labelled under the “virgin-whore” discourse in schools, workplaces, policies, media and at home.
At the personal level, I was taught that domestic violence was something “illegal,” but the government would rarely get involved if a woman suffered from it. I grew up in a society where stereotypical sons are mommy’s boys and where mothers are also at the very source of gendered violence against fellow women. I was a child where I first learned that much of it came from the Church and much more from the secular state. In my society, until recently, it was normal for women to get fired for being pregnant, children would be labelled as “natural” children if fathers refused to recognize them, or if the mother had been raped and did not want to disclose the identity of the father. Abortion is still prohibited in most states even in cases of rape, and women, but not men, can be jailed for attempting abortion.
So when I converted and people came to me asking me why I would change to a “worse” patriarchy?, I was puzzled.
Yes, Islam can be patriarchal, and much of the Qur’anic exegeses out there are the reflection of strong patriarchal ideas and ways of life. Patriarchy is not unique to religion, but also to culture and the secular state. For instance, the banning of the niqab in France, Canada and Holland still sees women as the symbol of the nation, or as a symbol of the “other’s” nation. Women are restricted in their way of clothing as a nationalist strategy (rather than a legitimate security concern), and as Jasbir Puar says the “other’s” women are defamated when there is conflict between nations, countries or states.
People would come and ask me about terrorism, beating, rape, harems, polygamy, slaves and niqabs as if these things were the pure representation of Islam. They would bring up Prophet Muhammad’s marriage to A’isha to tell me that Islam encourages pedophilia, and they would warn me about the “barbaric” nature of Muslim men as they kidnap and mistreat “fragile” girls like myself.
Similarly, every single reference to my change (or possible return) of religion was made in reference to a male in my life. People would ask me if I did not break my dad’s heart (my mom’s was irrelevant… ), if I had met a Muslim guy, or if maybe meeting a non-Muslim guy would set me straight.
For many of these people I had turned (and I keep turning) towards a “worse” patriarchy of that where I was born… even worse for them was the fact that being Western- educated I went straight into the harshest patriarchy (i.e. Islam), instead of walking into the arms of freedom (i.e. the West). However, I keep wondering, is there a “worse” patriarchy? Are they all the same, or are they different? Are there some that suit us “better” than others?
The issue of Islam being worse than anything else and of converts being either stupid or naïvely misled is, in my opinion, a poor representation of what Islam meant for me… Islam is often portrayed homogenously as a blur of patriarchy. Yet, there are different discourses around often challenging these assumptions and transforming orthodox exegesis (i.e. Islamic feminism & LGBTQ2/s discourses). And that’s what I see in Islam, a mosaic. Yes, Islam can be patriarchal and has been for many years, but there are other things out there. Just like orthodox Catholicism remains highly patriarchal and reinforces many anti-women attitudes, there have been movements to include women (i.e. female priestesses) and Catholic feminist discourses too.
For me, as a convert, Islam can be many things, and at the end it is what I make out of it; the way I include it in my life, the way I practice and include the teachings of the Qur’an in my daily interactions. I will not get away from the patriarchal practices that permeate my Muslim community any time soon, I will still have to pray in a separate room, I will be unable to lead prayers, unable to deliver khutba and unable to be a mufti, but step by step Inshallah (God Willing), I will somehow participate in the broader effort to shift this.
So my answer is no…. I did not shift towards a “worse” patriarchy; I adopted a religion that, in my personal view, has transformative possibilities where I will hopefully be able to transcend my day-to-day interactions with Muslim, Catholic and Secular patriarchy.